In Pennsylvania, changes at elk-check station disappointing

(Photo by Mark Nale)

Something was missing at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s elk-check station this fall. It took me awhile to put my finger on exactly what it was, but as the week progressed, I discovered the missing elements and how they affected the climate at the check station.

Pennsylvania has a limited-permit elk hunting season, with lucky hunters drawn from a pool of around 30,000 applications. This fall, 117 hunters participated in the hunt. Hundreds more observed the results of the hunt at the elk check station, which is operated by the Game Commission.

The check station is very important to hunters, their friends, the elk guides and the spectators. In the past, harvested elk were accurately weighed, antlers were measured for a gross Boone and Crockett green score, biological data was gathered, and the hunters were given a certificate.

Three years ago, the check station was moved from Quehanna to Benezette. Benezette is a more centralized location and has other pluses — better parking, improved space for organizations and vendors, better viewing by spectators, and brings business into the small community. In addition, the commission redesigned its elk-hunt website, providing a more detailed online presence.

The first glaring difference that I noticed was the absence of Wildlife Conservation Officer Doty McDowell, a long-time Game Commission employee who had acted as the “ringmaster” for the event — the same job that he had performed so well at the Quehanna bear-check station.

The very personable McDowell would announce elk weights to the spectators, answer their questions, and inform the crowd of anything that he deemed important. For example, he would share information such as the hunter being a veteran or if the elk being weighed was the heaviest thus far. In his position as Information and Education Supervisor, he also made himself available for interviews by TV, radio and newspaper reporters. McDowell retired about a month ago, clearly a loss for the Game Commission.

McDowell has a dry sense of humor that everyone loved. With the crowd watching, he once started a lively exchange with a successful hunter who pulled in sporting a bumper sticker derogatory of the commission.

Another time, I overheard a hunter at the bear-check station proudly tell McDowell, “This is my second bear.” Without skipping a beat, McDowell quipped, “Then we have a serious problem.”

After a long pause, McDowell added, “You know, you’re only allowed one bear per year.” Of course, the orange-clad hunter meant that it was the second bear of his lifetime, and McDowell knew that.

While I definitely missed McDowell, there were other issues as well. Agency biologist Tony Ross was handed McDowell’s check-station job, but that removed him from his previous job of scoring antlers. As a certified Boone and Crockett scorer, he seemed to enjoy providing that information to hunters. The person who took Ross’ place did some kind of funky estimate — scoring one antler and doubling that number. Sorry, but that isn’t the way it is done. And some bulls were not measured at all.

When one guide inquired about having Ross measure his hunter’s bull elk, he was told that the commission is discontinuing this practice. If that is correct, then it represents a giant step backwards. Official Boone and Crockett scores are compiled after antlers are dried for 60 days and measured. However, hunters have always appreciated knowing the gross green scores at the check station.

Another issue: Just prior to elk season, the commission didn’t even know if it would be able to borrow the crane required to lift the elk for weighing. I was told that there would be no provision to add each elk’s weight to the website. As it turned out, the crane was there for several days and removed later in the week. Hunters were then given “guesstimated” weights such as, “Let’s call this one 500 pounds.”

Successful cow elk hunters want to know the weights of their elk — it is important to them, the elk guides and the spectators.

Elk biologist Jeremy Banfield informed me that neither the exact weights nor the antler scores of individual elk are important data for his elk management purposes. Nonetheless, this information is very important to hunters and guides.

I hope that the Commission can get its act together for next season. It should return to scoring elk and make sure that there’s always a way to provide hunters with an accurate weight. The Commission could purchase its own crane or get permission to build a permanent crossbar strong enough and high enough to weigh an elk.

Looking back on this event, from a public relations perspective, the commission clearly lost points with its “customers” — the hunters and guides.

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